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An Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike: Part 4 - Crossing the State Line
The AT is all about America – it's scenery, its small towns, its people, its foods, its creatures, and its heritage.
Good Days and Bad Days
When thru-hiking the AT, hikers will have good days where they will get a lot accomplished, and bad days where they just can’t seem to get anywhere. The day after we stayed at Dick’s Creek Gap when we only hiked 10 miles, we had our first 20 mile hiking day. What was the difference between that day and the day before? Why were we so uninterested in hiking the first day, and in such a groove on the next? It's hard to say. In hiking as with many other parts of life there is a rhythm that can be achieved when body and mind come together. On March 22nd it didn't happen for us. On March 23rd it did.
One reason might have been the anticipation of crossing a state line. We had nice weather which probably played a part as well. The importance of the mental aspect of the trip was already becoming apparent to us. Being as young as we were, our bodies got in hiking shape pretty quickly. We could already see that it was the mental attitude day in and day out that would be the main challenge. We talked together about it and we developed a term that we would repeat to each other from time to time – PMA – positive mental attitude. “We've got to keep the PMA,” we would say to each other, or other times we would simply look at each other and say “PMA!”. By lunch time of this particular day our PMA was flying high. We had been on several backpacking trips together in the past, but this was the first one where we crossed from one state into another. Eating lunch at Bly Gap – essentially the border between Georgia and North Carolina – had us pumped up as much as we had been the first evening on Springer Mountain.
There is a unique feeling about hiking the Appalachian Trail. An AT hiker doesn't just travel through natural wonders, beautiful scenery, and rugged terrain. An AT hiker travels through an amazing slice of America. The plaque on Springer Mountain says “a footpath for those who wish to commune with the wilderness”. That is true, but the plaque could also easily say a footpath for those who wish to experience America. The AT is all about America – it's scenery, its small towns, its people, its foods, its creatures, and its heritage. Hiking from one state into another certainly reinforced that impression, and we looked at crossing into North Carolina as the accomplishment of an important intermediate goal.
During the last part of the day we climbed Standing Indian Mountain - a 5499’ mountain. The one thing I remember about climbing Standing Indian Mountain, is that it didn't seem like we climbed a mountain at all. The ascent was gradual and the top of the mountain was below timberline so we were surprised when we arrived at the top. In the New York State, 5000’ is above timberline, so having woods surrounding us above 5000 feet was something new for us. We enjoyed the view on Standing Indian Mountain and we decided to camp there.
The next morning was foggy. We ate a breakfast of oatmeal, and started hiking. Our plan was to reach Wesser, N.C. in three days of hiking. The trail was easy except for climbing Albert Mountain, but that was a short ascent, so all in all we made pretty good time. Albert was a different sort of climb than what we had encountered so far. The climb up was steep. There were spots where we had to scramble over rocks and pull ourselves up with handholds. Other mountains we had climbed on the trip so far had ascended through switchbacks. There was a fire tower on top and a good view. It was a short, fun mountain to climb.
Standing Indian Mountain
Turn on the Terrain option under Map to view the AT ascending Standing Indian Mountain
Sometimes word-of-mouth tipped us off to a great nugget of information that we could take advantage of. Other times it provided wrong information and mixed us up. We didn't know it at the time, but we were being mixed up in this instance.
Word-of-Mouth and Trust
A little way past Albert, we met another thru-hiker who was a middle aged lady. We talked for a bit and quickly found out that she was the hiker that was being supported by the two ladies who took Dave to the store for supplies from Dick’s Creek Gap. She and her friends were all schoolteachers in New Jersey. She was a trim lady who was very businesslike and well-organized. She was doing her hiking solo and her two friends dropped her off in the morning and picked her up at the end of the day. We would come across this hiker from time to time throughout the rest of our trip. Sometimes she was hiking our way and sometimes she was going in the opposite direction. We were always glad to see each other.
Later on, we were at a road intersection eating supper when her two friends drove up. They recognized us and got out to talk. We told them we had met their friend and also what our plans were for getting to Wesser to resupply. They told us that in their guidebook it said Wesser consisted of nothing more than a whitewater rafting outfitter complex and that everything was closed except during the summer. That was troubling because we were planning to buy a lot of supplies there. In response they offered to buy some supplies for us if we gave them the money for it.
This goes to show how significant word-of-mouth is on the AT. Even information researched ahead of time and information in guidebooks can be outdated. Sometimes word-of-mouth tipped us off to a great nugget of information that we could take advantage of. Other times it provided wrong information and mixed us up. We didn't know it at the time, but we were being mixed up in this instance. The two support ladies must have been consulting an old guidebook or one that hadn't been updated properly. Meanwhile our guidebooks didn't go into enough detail. All they reported was the name of the town, the road crossing, and the mileage from the last recorded location. It did say something to the effect of food and lodging, but nothing about the makeup of the town and when during the year the facilities were open or closed.
What we did next emphasizes the role trust plays in a thru-hike or any similar long-distance hike. The ladies offered to buy supplies for us and meet us when we came to the Wesser road crossing. To make sure we would be resupplied at Wesser, we gave them some money and watched them drive away with an agreement that we would meet up with them two days later in Wesser. In other respects we relied on trust and the honesty of strangers we met along the way. Every time we took a ride to a store, or even left our backpacks outside a store while we went in for 10-15 minutes to buy snacks, we trusted that no harm would come to us or our stuff. Each hiker must weigh those risks/rewards for themselves. What was right for Dave and I (the fact that there were two of us was important) might not be right for others.
There are three types of information: good, bad, and uncertain. As long as the subject doesn’t involve a tragedy, uncertainty is the worst. At least with bad news that is certain, one can accept a situation and make a definite plan. When there is uncertainty one can plan for the worst, which is what we did, but the possibilities can play tricks on the mind.
The Psychological Effects of Uncertainty
There are three types of information: good, bad, and uncertain. As long as the subject doesn’t involve a tragedy, uncertainty is the worst. At least with bad news that is certain, one can accept a situation and make a definite plan. When there is uncertainty one can plan for the worst, which is what we did, but the possibilities can play tricks on the mind. The resupply at Wesser was, of course, important. But psychologically Wesser was more than that. It was the first major goal of the trip for us. We had heard great things about it – there was a hostel with a shower, a restaurant, laundry facilities, the store to resupply, and that it was a cool town. Now we weren't so sure. It sounded like our rejuvenation would have to wait. We had been on the trail for over a week without a shower or bath, all our clothes were dirty, and we were craving some grilled meat. There was about a 1 mile hike between the road crossing where we ate dinner and spoke with the support team ladies and Wallace Gap where there was another road crossing. We mulled over our situation as we covered that distance. We were fortunate to have the ladies getting some supplies for us in case Wesser was closed down, but we couldn’t help being a little dejected. By the time we reached Wallace Gap we were ready to improvise.
We read in the Dave’s guidebook, that if we walked 5 miles down the road that crossed the trail at Wallace Gap, we could get supplies, have a shower, and do laundry.There were no details other than that. With that thin thread of information, we decided to go in search of some compensation for the possibility that there would be nothing available in Wesser. This was one time where the possibility of a long backtrack did not deter us from striking off down the road. It may have been a gamble, but really what did we have to lose? When you are carrying everything you own on your back, you are truly portable. The worst that could have happened to us was that we could've hiked 5 to 10 miles down the road, found nothing, and ended up turning around and coming back. That would've made us mad, but it wouldn't have jeopardized us or our trip.
We had hiked a couple miles when suddenly a truck came past. On the spur of the moment Dave stuck out his thumb. The truck immediately pulled over to the shoulder and stopped. When Dave stuck out his thumb it was our first attempt at hitchhiking, not only on the trip, but ever. Even growing up back in the 70s and early 80s there were warnings about hitchhiking. I can remember that when the truck suddenly stopped, I was thinking about those warnings until a matronly gray-haired woman in her mid to late 50s stepped out of the cab. At that moment any reservations I had about hitchhiking immediately melted away. We explained to the woman what we were trying to do. She replied that there was nothing five miles down the road, and the nearest place to get something decent to eat was Franklin, North Carolina 15 miles away. She also said she was going there but she wouldn't be coming out until around midnight.
Her truck had a cap and we crawled into the bed beneath it and leaned back against our packs. During the ride into Franklin, I felt strange lounging in the back of the pickup being driven who knows where by a stranger because we were in the mood for a hamburger. The lady, whose name turned out to be Dorothy, dropped us off at a bowling alley and said she would pick us up at the same place around midnight. We thanked her and she left. It never occurred to us that she might not come back, that she might forget about us, or that anything might go wrong. With us a day’s hike from the trail when we were committed to be in Wesser in two days to meet some people who were buying supplies for us, we were once again operating on trust. We trusted that things would work out for us, but in a strange way we felt self-sufficient as well. If things hadn't worked out, we had our packs with us. Contained within or strapped to our packs was everything we needed - food, even though we were getting low, a small camp stove to cook it with, clothes, a tent for shelter, and money. It was everything we could want or need. To be so portable and self-sufficient freed us up to do spontaneous things without concern for what might happen to our possessions.
In Franklin we had our burgers and fries at a Hardee’s and we played some arcade games for a while at the bowling alley. The side trip partially made up for potential losses from Wesser's facilities being closed. We didn't get a shower and we didn't get a bed to sleep in, but the fast food was welcome. All in all it was an interesting diversion. As expected, Dorothy showed up around midnight to pick us up from the bowling alley where she had dropped us off. On the way back to the trail she let us sit up front with her. We had a conversation on the way back where we found out that she was originally from New York State. We also found out that she had a grown son. It’s just speculation, but looking back now, she might have had a soft spot in her heart for a couple young lads looking for a ride into town, remembering some of the adventures her own son might have had in his past.
She dropped us off back at Wallace Gap and we started up the pitch black trail with nothing but the thin beams of our flashlights to guide us. The woods were thick and the trail was steep coming up out of the gap. We only went a few hundred yards before we decided to simply pull out our sleeping bags and lay them out on a flat spot in the middle of the trail. That was where we slept until the sun rose and woke us in the morning. Luckily there were no early morning hikers that came along the trail and stepped on or tripped over us in the dark.